SAN DIEGO — Drama. Chaos. Excitement. The 2023 NWSL Championship had it all.
OL Reign had moments to score an equalizer as the final seconds ticked away at Snapdragon Stadium. Much of the crowd rose to their feet as Reign forward Elyse Bennett and NJ/NY Gotham FC goalkeeper, Mandy Haught, charged towards each other, each trying to be first to a long ball.
Haught made it first and knocked the ball away as she reached out. Midfielder, Rose Lavelle, rebounded the loose ball with an empty goal in sight, but she hit the ball wide. All danger seemed clear for Gotham, and they were on their way to winning the NWSL Championship.
But then, drama ensued. A virtual assistant referee (VAR) review found that Haught touched the ball while it was outside the box. Such a decision resulted in her being sent off for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO). Since Gotham used all three of their substitute windows, they could not bring on a goalkeeper, leading midfielder Nealy Martin to replace Haught in goal.
The Reign had a free kick from just outside the box as three players stood over the ball. Lavelle struck the ball toward the goal, but she hit the wall. The referees blew the final whistle shortly after, and Gotham won the championship, 2-1. Martin did not have to make a save, but fans will likely remember her efforts for many years.
Such extreme circumstances and dramatic moments are regular occurrences in the NWSL. On April 29, Portland Thorns goalkeeper, Bella Bixby, backheeled an equalizing goal against Angel City. Other matches have included other dramatic moments; the NWSL Championship put them on display to a broad audience.
Aside from late-match chaos, the match showed the world what the league is about: skilled players playing in front of large crowds.
Fans who tuned into the championship were treated to a show by Gotham forward Midge Purce and Lavelle. Both displayed remarkable skill, a weekly occurrence in a league that houses most of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) and other women’s soccer stars.
Lavelle showed quick pace and the skill that makes her one of the NWSL’s stars. She scored 29 minutes into the match after bolting past Gotham’s backline. She also brought the crowd to their feet after spinning away from two defenders and playing a well-placed through ball to forward Bethany Balcer, among other highlights.
Purce’s highlights were arguably as or more impressive than Lavelle’s. She strung together a series of skill moves en route to assisting the match’s opening goal. Purce also played a solid corner kick on Gotham’s winning goal. She won the NWSL Championship Most Valuable Player (MVP) for her two-assist effort.
Gotham forwards Lynn Williams and Esther González also demonstrated their talents, each scoring a goal. González’s goal was especially impressive as she rose above Lavelle and froze Reign goalkeeper Claudia Dickey on her header.
The NWSL has many of the best women’s soccer players and is one of the most competitive leagues in the world. The table was separated by 13 points at the end of the 2023 regular season, significantly less than many other top leagues. Many matches are close; the championship exemplified such a trait, finishing 2-1.
“One of the biggest differences with the Spanish league, which is a great league, is that here (in the NWSL) every match, absolutely every match, is like a Champions League match, at the highest level,” González told AS’s Marta Griñan.
In addition to tight matches, many matches feature large crowds filled with passionate fans. The NWSL sold over 1.2 million tickets in 2023, and attendance is rising year-over-year. San Diego Wave, Angel City, and Portland Thorns led the league by averaging slightly under 20 thousand fans per game in 2023. The NWSL Championship featured a crowd of 25,011 fans, a record for the game, played at a neutral site.
The fans at the championship were enthusiastic, chanting Krieger’s name multiple times and giving Reign forward Megan Rapinoe a standing ovation when she left the game due to an apparent Achilles injury. Both players were set to retire after the match, ending their accomplished careers.
“Our product is excellent,” said Gotham defender Ali Krieger after the match. “It’s actually elite. We are elite footballers, and we deserve this. And year after year, it’s only going to get better.”
Despite talented play and large crowds, the NWSL also has work to do. The field conditions were less than ideal at the championship, as faint marks of San Diego State (SDSU) Football were visible. Plus, what appeared to be small divots were present throughout the field. Many NWSL teams are secondary tenants (or lower) of the stadiums they play in, and Snapdragon Stadium is one location where that occurs. The Wave played multiple matches where the field was in relatively poor condition because SDSU Football has priority.
The NWSL is taking strides forward regarding its field conditions, though. The Kansas City Current are set to begin play in their women’s soccer-specific stadium, CPKC Stadium, in 2024.
Large crowds are also still not a constant for every NWSL team. While some teams, like Angel City and the Wave, play in front of 20 thousand or more regularly, others, such as the Chicago Red Stars and North Carolina Courage, average around five thousand fans at home. Still, NWSL attendance is increasing year-on-year. The number of matches with ten thousand fans or more doubled in 2023. The NWSL Championship showed what those environments look like.
The NWSL has a new media rights deal for 2024. The product was on full display during the championship game, and the league hopes and believes it will continue growing as it builds towards a potentially pivotal 2027 World Cup. The NWSL has lots of talent and close matches. Next, it must continue improving its conditions as interest rises.